Google Art Project: Changing Variables in Functions

Yiran Sun

On February 1, 2011, Google launched the Google Art Project, its online platform of museum-based high-resolution images of artworks. A virtual museum. Many saw this as a game-changer, one innovation that will potentially change the way people view and understand art. However, after two years since the launch, there is still no visible change in people’s perception of art, at least nothing that can be mainly contributed to the project.

Let us first look at what the platform changes about our museum visiting experience. One great feat is that while collectors and museums frees art works from their time periods so they can sit together side by side, the Google Art Project frees the art pieces from being bounded by the physical restrictions of museums across the globe: Now the “Luncheon on the Grass” of Edouard Manet from the fifth floor of the Musee d’Orsay in Paris, France can enjoy the company of “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte” of Georges Seurat from the second level of the Art Institute of Chicago in Chicago, USA.

But this is not novel: of course we’ve all seen art works from different museums arranged on other websites, in books, or even during cross-museum exchanges. What is important about the Google Art Project is its extremely high-definition renderings of the art pieces, and the relatively standard representations of color and texture. It also incorporated the Google signature “museum view”, which simulates the experience of physically wandering around a museum. And what is outstanding about the project, is the fact that with the platform, anyone can create art collections and narratives of their own, according to their own interests and themes. No longer do people need to be rich to purchase a collection, resourceful to print a book, or even technology-smart to create his/her own website: Now, one Google account and one click of the mouse is all the person needs.

However, is this “distribution of power” really a game-changer as it has been branded? Well, yes, and no. If we view the art world as a mathematical problem, and its various actors as mathematical functions (please forgive me of intentionally misuse the term “function”, for I think this would help better illustrate the concept), then the people who take on the roles are the variables. When the collections changed from physical museums to virtual collections on Google, the museum function stayed the same, while the variable of physical museums are replaced here by peer-contributed collections. Similarly, in the curator function, the variable of professional curator is replaced by grass root Internet users; and in the art school function, the variable is changed yet the rule of pattern recognition stays the same. As for the dealer and collector functions, they are more intimately incorporated in the project itself. What was the variable for the collector function (museums) now becomes the variable for the dealer function, while its original place is filled with the variable of the Google Art Project (now the collector). Certainly, like any mathematical functions, outputs vary according to changes in variables. However, the point here is that the rules of the functions would always stay the same, and thus the answer “yes” for things would change or seem different, but “no” for the underlying rules would stay indifferent to the shifting of variables.

And of course, the Google Art Project is still not quite competition for the “real world” experience of museums. Even if the photos are standardized across museums, the color display is still subject to the various settings of monitors on the viewers’ end. (You know what they say: There are no two monitors that look alike.) Besides the issue with consistency, the points of view of the Google cameras are also troubling. It’s on a rather high level, and can only pan or tilt instead of pedestalling up and down. For some of the more experimental paintings such as “The Ambassadors” of Hans Holbein the Younger, which has been designed to achieve illusions when viewed from a certain angle on the side, the rigid viewpoints of Google cameras can be a big issue. Also, the museum view does not have high resolution even as one zooms in onto the subjects, and finding the HD version of the artworks in museum mode has been relatively difficult.

That being said, the Google Art Project is still a great highlight in our online experience, and one significant step towards a more connected, shared global culture, for better or worse. As a fan of arts, I am excited to see future development of it as technology advances and especially as more museums join the project and more people start putting together their own collections.